Vegas Unexpected: The Other Road to Vegas

Turnoff to Death Valley at Olancha, California
The turnoff to Death Valley at Olancha, California
Photo by Megan Edwards

[Map] [Video]

If you ask just about anyone how to get from Los Angeles to Las Vegas by car, chances are you’ll get a three-syllable answer: I-15. While it’s true that Interstate 15 is the shortest and fastest route from LA to LV, it isn’t the only way to cover the distance. If you ever need to make the journey (and it works just as well the other direction, too), try the scenic route that takes you over five mountain passes and down to sea level in Death Valley. Yes, it’s longer, but if you don’t stop to explore too much, you can cover the distance in around eight hours, which is only three hours longer than you’d spend zipping past Barstow and Baker.

If you have a full day or more, there’s plenty to check out in more detail than the view through your windshield provides. You’ll pass three state parks as you leave Los Angeles, and the well-preserved Darwin ghost town is a short detour off the road as you head into the hills east of Olancha. Panamint Springs has a resort with motel rooms, campsites, a gas station, a convenience store, and a friendly saloon with a bar made out of a gigantic redwood burl.

In Death Valley, you drive by sand dunes, picturesque rock formations, and sights that reflect the influence of its gloomy name, like the Funeral Mountains and the Devil’s Cornfield. If you’ve got the time, you can take side trips to Dante’s View, which offers a panoramic vista of the whole valley, and Badwater, the lowest dry spot in the United States. You’ll also drive right by the park’s two resorts at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Both have gas stations, coffee shops, and convenience stores in addition to motel rooms and campsites.

Furnace Creek is also home of the historic and elegant Furnace Creek Inn, which has been in operation for over 90 years. If you time your trip to reach the inn for lunch or dinner, you can enjoy views of the valley from the beautiful dining room while you enjoy a first-class meal. If you stay overnight at the inn, you can enjoy a well-appointed room with a view of the valley and vintage furnishings. There’s also a spectacular swimming pool that’s fed by a natural warm spring.

View The Other Road to Vegas in a larger map

Heading east past Furnace Creek, you’ll go past Zabriskie Point and Twenty-Mule Team Canyon, both of which are well worth detours. The road then leads out of the park to Death Valley Junction, home of the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. From there, the most direct route to Las Vegas is through Pahrump, but most online mapping programs will route you through Beatty. If you go through Pahrump and still feel like sightseeing, you can check out Dirty Laundry, the Laundromat owned by “Madam to the Stars” Heidi Fleiss. If you’re interested, you can also take a detour down Gamebird Road to Pahrump’s X-rated attractions, the Chicken Ranch and Sheri’s Ranch.

From Pahrump, it’s about an hour’s drive “over the hump” to Las Vegas. “The hump” is the last of the mountain passes you must climb over on this route, and if you’re not anxious to get to Sin City, you can stop in for a brew with the biker crowd at the “World Famous” Mountain Springs Saloon.
Highway 160 turns into Blue Diamond Road and dumps you out at Las Vegas Boulevard not too far south of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. You can easily pick up Interstate 15 and get anywhere in the valley you want to go.

This route works perfectly well in reverse, and it’s especially appealing in spring and fall. We were hoping to see wildflowers when we traveled in mid March and saw none. It hardly mattered. The changes in elevation and dramatic scenery are always spectacular, and the terrain never fails to reveal something unexpected. This time, it was puddles and pools left by recent rains and the sudden appearance of two large coyotes. We found Heidi Fleiss’s laundromat by accident, too. I just happened to remember the name from a recent newspaper story.


15 responses on “Vegas Unexpected: The Other Road to Vegas

  1. I loved this piece — and the video was great. You did lots of work on this and it shows!

  2. My family and I spent last Sunday in Death Valley. It was my third visit. Again, it was a great time. However, there were no wildflowers on our visit either. We’ve caught them in previous years; it’s a breathtaking sight. Still, we had fun at Titus Canyon and Scotty’s Castle. I was able to cross off a couple more attractions from those to experience. We’ve seen so much yet there’s still plenty more to explore. We especially enjoy the 4×4 trails, we love to seek adventures off the beaten path. We’re hopeful to find time to camp soon.

    However you choose to get there it’s definitely worth a visit.

  3. Kellee, Diane & Peter,

    Yes, Death Valley is one of my favorite parks in North America. I’ve been fortunate to be able to drive many of the off-road trails in Death Valley and three of the back road routes you ought to consider are described in this field report. Plus, here are some links to field reports, (there are five articles about trips in Death Valley at the top of that page) to other less visited sections of the park.

    And finally a link to Megan’s photo gallery from the amazing 2005 wildflower display in Death Valley!


  4. We did the Racetrack last spring. We went through Panamint Springs, up and over Hunter Mountain and across Hidden Valley to get there. Beautiful drive. The Racetrack was breathtaking and unique. We took the Racetrack Road back and busted a shock on the washboard like road. That remaining stretch was brutal. We arrived at Ubehebe crater at dusk. The colors were lovely at that time.

    We were also fortunate to catch the wildflowers in 2005. It was spectacular. We also saw Devils Golf Course under water at that time, that was a wild sight to see. It looked like ice.

  5. I like that rough road! I like to air down to about 15 psi and zip right though there — I’VE seen some bad mechanical problems — One time I saw a SUV looking cross-eyed — One of the steering tie-rods had snapped so both wheels were pointing in! I’ve also rescued a couple of motorists who shouldn’t have tried it. I’ve driven pretty close to 35- 45 mph for most of it — slowing down only for the worst washouts. But I usually have to gag any on-board passengers who tend to scream a lot…

    Hunter Mountain is pretty cool — but you’ve got try Lippincot the next time — there are some significant washouts and you’ll probably suck in a breath or two, but it’s very, very cool. And I love the extensive Joshua Tree forest you go through on Saline Valley Road.

    Wasn’t Lost Burro Gap special? I really like that stretch of the Hidden Valley Road.


  6. Will have to make a point of checking out Lippincott Mine Road. It definitely sounds fun. Hunter Mountain was neat since there was snow and cattle roaming about. It’s a nice & easy scenic drive.

    Coming across old mines and ghost towns are always interesting, but the rock formations in the area were fantastic. In all my years of studying Earth Science back in Chicago, I never truly grasped it until I visited Death Valley. There is so much on display.

  7. It would be tough to study geology in a place like Chicago or New England — trees cover almost all of the interesting stuff — That’s only one of the reasons I like living here.


  8. This was posted the day after we’d visited Death Valley. We visited Zabriskie Point and Scotty’s Castle on that trip. It’s a wonderful place, outside of summer, and worth a trip for anyone whether you’re headed for California or not.

  9. Hi, this looks like a great trip. We’re planning a family trip in late December 2013 / early January 2014 and i’m wondering if this route could be impassable during mid Winter ? Any feedback appreciated.

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